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What Is Hügelkultur Gardening?
Hügelkultur (pronounced "hoo-gul-culture") is a raised bed gardening technique in which a gardener layers soil, rotting wood, and other organic matter to form in mound-like garden beds. The term hügelkultur was coined in 1962 by Herrman Andrä (it comes from the German word for "hill culture" or "mound culture"), and the technique itself was later popularized and perfected by permaculture expert Sepp Holzer. Hügelkultur gardens are a major contribution to permaculture design.
What Are the Benefits of Hügelkultur Gardening?
Hügelkultur gardens retain nutrients particularly well due to the rotting wood trunks and branches buried at the bottom layer of the bed. Hügelkultur gardens have excellent water retention due to the layering of organic matter and thus require minimal watering. A hügelkultur bed also sequesters carbon in the soil by creating an underground environment where wood and other organic matter decomposes.
How to Create a Hügelkultur Garden Bed
There are many layering techniques for building a hügelkultur garden. Below are best practices for building a moderately-sized hügelkultur garden bed, approximately 10 feet by four feet.
- Build a base. Hügelkultur gardens are traditionally freestanding, though you can build an enclosure for added structure. The base of a hügelkultur bed should be rotting, woody materials. Add a layer of wood about a foot tall as a base. Woods like alder, apple, birch, cottonwood, maple, and oak all work well. Stay clear of woods such as black cherry, black locust, and black walnut in your hügelkultur garden, as these woods decay slowly. Ensure that the wood is compacted but still maintains air pockets.
- Add organic matter. Once the base is secure, add mounds of nitrogen-rich material on top of the rotting wood. Examples of organic matter include additional wood chips or small branches, aged manure, grass clippings, humus, dead leaves, fruit scraps, and vegetable discards. The mound should be shaped like a pyramid, with the highest point directly above the center of the pile.
- Add additional compost. The fungi and bacteria in compost activate the soil, initiating a composting process that promotes plant immunity and extends the life of your crops. Mulching the top layer of your soil can also give your plants a head start in growth.
- Cover the mound with high-quality garden soil. The last layer of your hügelkultur garden should be soil. You’ll want a rich, loamy soil with good drainage and an average to slightly acidic soil pH level. Use the same soil you would in a traditional garden bed. Loam with a soil ratio of approximately 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay is ideal for a vegetable garden. Use about one inch of soil.
- Allow the mound to rest. Your hügelkultur garden needs to sit a few months to allow the organic matter to break down before you begin planting seeds. Once your hügelkultur garden is ready, you can plant anything that you would in a normal raised garden bed—fruits, vegetables, flours, and herbs.
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